On reading to music

I did quite a lot of ballet when I was younger, and have therefore developed a bit of a taste for classical music. So when my friend Mekhla, who is a pianist, suggested that we see a symphony last night, I was game. We’ve done this before, but this time she suggested, ‘Bring a book if you want; they only dim the lights – It’s light enough to read.’ This had never occurred to me before, and I didn’t think I would do it – it seemed a bit disrespectful – but out of habit, I packed Rosemary’s Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth in my bag.

I watched the Tchaikovsky concerto right through, which was wonderful. At interval Mekhla told me that the next piece, the symphony, was really dark and quite depressing. When the orchestra started back up, I didn’t hear the depressing-nes of the music. I heard drama and battle cries – I heard The Eagle of the Ninth.It just happens that Tchaikovsky’s symphony is the perfect music to listen to when reading Eagle of the Ninth, a book set in Roman Britain which tells the story of Marcus, an aspiring soldier who finds that he is injured in battle and his dreams crushed. I guiltily pulled out my book, and in the semi-darkness started to read, letting the music build images in my head.

Some moments, of course, didn’t fit the music at all. There were swells of dramatic music, which would have suited a fighting scene, or a melodramatic scene, when I just wasn’t reading that. But there was a perfect soft moment in the fist movement which fitted amazingly with Marcus being given a wolf cub by his slave, which made the moment that much more poignant. And the third movement had a lovely sing-song bit which worked perfectly when the young girl Cottia makes her first appearance. And the last movement made Marcus letting his cub go into the wild, hoping that he will come back but not knowing if he will, but knowing he had to let him choose if he wanted to be free or wanted to be with him – that last movement made that moment so much more heart-breaking (that was the depressing bit that Mekhla was talking about). (As an interesting aside, Mekhla was telling me that originally Tchaikovsky had cannons being fired written into that piece of music – the last movement had cannons booming every few moments, adding an extra blast to the music. It really was the right piece to listen to while reading about violent Roman Britain.

Reading to music, the right music, can be like the right music in a movie – it brings emotion to the surface, makes everything full of so much more feeling. Tchaikovsky’s music, in particular, has such a feeling of movement in it (he wrote a lot of ballets) that it was so easy to see the characters moving in my mind’s eye. I was wondering, once the performance was over, if I would have been so touched by Marcus saying goodbye to his cub, not knowing if he would see him again, if I had not had that music in the background.

Mekhla, as a pianist, has to practice six to eight hours a day. I have accompanied her to practice a few times, reading while she plays, and really enjoyed it. I think I am going to do a lot more of that from now on – but I will have to check with her which pieces she is going to play, so I can match my book to it, and get swept up in a perfect mixture of words and music.



  1. What a fascinating experience! I love your thoughts on the relationship between music and reading, having a soundtrack to the story. And to have the experience be a ‘live’ one must have added such an incredible dimension at the different times of the plot, as you say yourself.

    Like you, I think I would feel guilty reading during parts of a performance, but I might just sneak a book in the next time I go….

    • I think the fact that it was live made it so much more special – I would glance up, almost forgetting that there would be a whole orchestra in front of me until I saw them before my eyes. If the music didn’t fit the book at that moment, I could just watch for a minute or two, before dipping back into the book. Glorious!

  2. I always listen to music when I read – and there are some books that I am always and every time reminded of when a song is playing I was listening to when I read it; for example I was listening to Adele while reading A Song of Ice and Fire back to back, and every time I hear an Adele song (not that rarely) I have to think of Arya and Jon and Sansa and Daenerys.

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